In order to explore the far frontiers and violent intrigues of the second century, most authors would probably not choose a female protagonist. The Roman Empire was a man’s world where women were generally property or playthings. Yet Gillian Bradshaw does just that in The Beacon at Alexandria. Charis, however, is an unlikely heroine whose story is told in three settings: Ephesus, where she grew up; Alexandria, where she learned medicine; and Thrace, where she practiced it. Whether Charis can experience life fully as a woman, as a doctor, and as a Roman citizen is the novel’s primary question.
More interested in nursing sick animals than in dreaming of marriage prospects, fifteen-year-old Charis feels that the “girl in the mirror, the demurely proper, overdressed doll” is not herself. Even though Festinus, the new governor of Asia, threatens her father’s wealth and reputation and physically assaults her, Charis is forced to become engaged to him. Rather than submit to a life of hollow pretense with such a cruel man, she runs away, disguised as a eunuch, to study medicine in Alexandria.
In this Egyptian city, the academic capital of the Roman world and the center of the Nicene/Arian power struggle in the Christian church, Charis, now called Chariton, finds it difficult to enter the closed medical community. Only a kindly Jewish doctor, Philon, will take her on as an assistant. He is a practitioner of the Hippocratic method of...
(The entire section is 511 words.)